The 56th edition of E3 Harelbeke starts the Belgian Classics campaign for the hard men of the peloton. With the weather the riders have had to endure over the past few weeks, they might be happy to know the forecast is partly cloudy and an almost balmy 10°C. With that in mind, our review will probably feature a freak thunderstorm that rained lizards. Reptile showers aside, defending champion Tom Boonen (OPQS) will be looking for his sixth victory in this race.
What kind of race is it?
This one-day race was elevated to WorldTour status last year and represents the start of the Vlaamse Wielerweek, a week of Belgian cobbled races which includes Gent-Wevelgem, Driedaagse De Panne (Three Days of De Panne) and culminating with the mighty Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on March 31st.
The winners from the last five years are:
2008: Kurt Asle Arveson (CSC)
2009: Filippo Pozzato (Katusha)
2010: Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
2011: Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek)
2012: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)
What happened last year?
Last year’s Classics season was supposed to be the one that matched Boonen and Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack) strength for strength, pedal-stroke for pedal-stroke, as both came into this race focused and in peak condition. After a few years plagued by injury, bad form and general ennui, Boonen was back to his old self, ready to take on Spartacus, the overwhelming favourite to perform an E3 hat-trick. In the end Boonen prevailed, as he came storming out of his Monaco wilderness to stamp his authority on this race by taking a head-to-head sprint against Oscar Freire (Katusha).
Cancellara, meanwhile, had what he famously tweeted as “a shit day of #unluck”, with punctures, crashes and getting floored by a Rabobank rider during a wheel change. Little did he know that the next weekend in Flanders would end his Classics season with a bidon under the wheels and a multiple collarbone break. In contrast, by the end of the Classics season, Boonen’s victory salute became almost automatic.
1. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 4:51:59
2. Oscar Freire (Katusha) same time
3. Bernhard Eisel (Sky) s/t
4. Leonardo Duque (Cofidis) s/t
5. Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) s/t
6. John Degenkolb (1t4i) s/t
7. Alexandre Pichot (Europcar) s/t
8. Alessandro Ballan (BMC ) s/t
9. Sebastian Turgot (Europcar) s/t
10. Matti Breschel (Rabobank) s/t
You can read our full 2012 race review here.
This year’s race
There’s a good reason why this race is so well-regarded and that’s because it follows much of the same route as the Ronde. Starting and finishing in the town of Harelbeke, the race is 210km long – 45km shorter than the Ronde – and has a snaggle-toothed look to its profile, taking in 15 hills, most of which are concentrated in the second half of the race.
Oh, and there are cobbled sections – both on the flat and up those short, sharp, iconic climbs, such as the Eikenberg, Taaienberg – known as Boonenberg as this is Tommeke’s favourite place to attack – and the Kapelberg. Leberg is the first climb and it has a maximum gradient of 14% so you can see where this race is going – to Suffersville with bells on. Nearer the end of the race the cobbled Paterberg bites the tired legs with a 12.5% gradient, while the Oude Kwaremont has a milder 4.2% gradient but is ridden over 1,500m worth of big Belgian cobbles. Anyone riding this race has to enjoy a little pain.
Who to watch
As last year, all eyes will be on Boonen and Cancellara, in the hopes of getting the Classics season off to a rip-roaring start. Boonen will be supported by an aggressively in-form Sylvain Chavanel, Iljo Keisse and Stijn Vandenbergh, while Cancellara has Stijn Devolder, Tony Gallopin and Yaroslav Popovych to assist.
But both of these guys need to watch a certain Peter Sagan (Cannondale), who seems to be able to do almost any kind of race and so nearly won Milan-San Remo single-handed last weekend. It’ll be interesting to see what he can produce here and how that bodes as we look forward to Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Sky have been training specifically for the Classics this year and, on paper, have an embarrassment of riches with Edvald Boasson Hagen, Geraint Thomas, Milan-San Remo and Dwars door Vlaanderen star Ian Stannard and ladies’ favourite Bernie Eisel.
With EBH pinning on number 41, you’d think he was the protected rider but with Stannard’s current form much further up the road than Boasson Hagen’s, it’ll be interesting to see who the team is putting its watts behind.
BMC come with an equally strong team, with world champion Philippe Gilbert, God of Thunder Thor Hushovd and No-Nickname-As-Of-Yet Greg van Avermaet. Michael Schar, who shone for most of the day at Strade Bianche, is also on the roster.
Lotto Belisol are bringing Lars Bak and Jurgen Roelandts, while Blanco come to the start line with Lars Boom (who got unceremoniously squeezed into a ditch by an unforgiving Boonen last year), Mark Renshaw and Sep Vanmarcke. Garmin-Sharp has big Jack Bauer and super-tough Andreas Klier, former Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren, Nick Nuyens and road captain David Millar.
Also keep an eye out for Argonaut John Degenkolb, Saxo-Tinkoff’s Matti Breschel and Vacansoleil’s Juan Antonio Flecha. Wild-card team IAM brings the gloveless Heinrich Haussler (who’s surely ready to win one of these!) and Aleksejs Saramontins, Schar’s breakaway companion in Strade Bianche.
E3 Harelbeke takes place on Friday 22rd March. In the UK, Eurosport will be showing race highlights. For other options check cyclingfans.com.